How distant can ‘lost cousinship’ be?


This article by Anthony Adolph, professional genealogist, broadcaster and author, draws on some of the concepts in his latest book:


Views of the relevance of cousinship vary: a lot of people will argue that first cousinship, derived through sharing grandparents, or second cousinship, derived through sharing great grandparents, is valid and relevant, but anything more distant doesn’t really count.


But the more people like us spend time researching our ancestry, the broader the net can be cast. When I worked in a genealogical office in Canterbury I discovered an 8th cousin twice removed living literally over the road, and more recently I was delighted to discover, two years before her wedding, that one of my 10th cousins once removed was Kate Middleton.

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How much further the net can be cast in terms of such precise statements of relationship is limited only by genealogical records. Through the Fairfax family, who are my common link with the Duchess of Cambridge, I can take a line back for us both to the Percys of Northumberland, who were descended from Edward III, and this provides reliable genealogical lines back as far as you can trace Edward’s ancestors – back to the AD 500s at least through his Wessex ancestors, and yet further back through his various descents from European royalty. Millions of people worldwide can trace similar lines back to these same royal root-stocks, and with any of them it is possible to calculate a precise and delightfully distant degrees of cousinship.


But genealogy is about much more than written records. It’s self-evident that all humans are our cousins, one way or another and, in the last few decades, genetics has added a surprising new precision to our knowledge of the degrees of relationship involved. The Y chromosomes carried by all human males identify 20 groups (called haplogroups) from which all male-lines descend, and show us how these groups are themselves related. They thus define a great family tree of humanity, as defined by the male line, Y chromosome. The mitochondrial DNA, which each of us inherited from our mothers, equally falls into 35 haplogroups, also interrelated, forming another great family tree of humanity, as defined by the female line. The male lines go back to a man, dubbed the ‘genetic Adam’, who probably lived in Africa about 80,000 years ago, and the female lines (including Adam’s female line ancestry) go back to a woman, dubbed the ‘mitochondrial Eve’, who probably lived in Africa about 140,000 years ago. A new way of defining cousinship, therefore, is by common membership of these genetic haplogroups and their numerous sub-groups, as revealed by genetic testing.


All such tests affirm our common descent from the tiny group of early Homo sapiens who evolved in Africa, about 200,000 years ago. They had evolved out of earlier Homo species, and they in turn had evolved out of earlier species of apes, monkeys, earlier mammals, cynodonts, earlier synapsids, reptiles, amphibians, fish, sea-worms, early metazoa and, ultimately, single-celled ancestors, floating about in the primal seas some 3,500 million years ago. This greater pedigree, traced through the study of biology and fossils in the 19th and 20th century and now increasingly honed through genetic studies, not only provides a detailed account of our ancestry right back to the dawn of life, but also defines our cousinship to all other forms of life on earth.


The birds in the garden are your cousins, as are the spiders on the dahlias, the dahlias themselves, the fungus on their leaves and the bacteria in your stomach. They’re all long-lost cousins, connected by an unbroken chain of generations, within the great family tree of life.


Anthony Adolph is the author of Tracing Your Aristocratic Ancestors, which investigates  how far back you can trace through noble and royal lines, and In Search of Our Ancient Ancestors, which takes the story right back to the dawn of life on Earth (you can see Peter Calver’s review here). Both are published by Pen & Sword: for more details about these books and the services that Anthony offers, or to read some of the other interesting articles that he has written, please see his website.

 Article originally published at Lost Cousins website 




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